Monday, May 08, 2017

Bliss and other stories

Quince (Cydonia oblonga) April 9th 2017, Bath

I haven't begun yet. I don't yet know if I can write about Katherine Mansfield.

I can read her, mostly. There are some greasy spots on the pane no doubt, but most of Bliss is pellucid now. "I know why, I know what you're saying....!" -- I say to this long-dead writer -- I read a bit more ---  it's almost a conversation.


I'm forever grateful for the long years at uni when I had time to read the massive novels of our classical tradition. These days I can't read many novels. I begin to take more interest in short stories... that curious, democratic form. Everyone who can write at all can write a reasonable short story. We don't make lists of the best short stories, like we  do with larger forms such as novels or films or operas. Consequently, the titles of short stories are comparatively unimportant (hence whimsical Mansfield titles like "Feuille d'Album"). The short story is a kind of folk art. In saying what it needs to say in the limited space available, it resorts to certain necessary crudenesses. The short story fails to attain authority. (That can be a good thing).  It has a very close relationship with stereotype and cliche and the instinctive judgments we make that are based on externals. The short story can hardly begin without having that dubious company in tow.

In Bliss we see it, for example, in the numbing quantities of period affected speech -  "dear little" "queer little" "dreadful" "fiendish", and so on. James and Proust use that kind of speech as part of an intensive inquiry into civilization and its meaning. Mansfield hasn't got time for that. Mostly, she uses such language as a shorthand way of implying critique of the person speaking or thinking: emptiness, brittleness, superficiality. Yes, it can be crude...  briskly and necessarily.

But that's not always how Mansfield uses fashionable slang... "The Man Without a Temperament" ends with its virtually silent hero, sharing his wife's final days in a semi-shut-down state, pronouncing the word "Rot". The effect isn't crude here. It's a Tolstoyan art:  to bring people's existences and emotions to life, floating and communicating with each other almost separately from the words that are actually said.  Almost but not quite.


Katherine Mansfield was under sentence of death herself. Bliss is a catalogue of neurotic, highly strung men and women.

It ends with "The Escape", in which a woman, jarred by the mundanities of travel, pours out a frantic torrent of abuse at her husband, who's blamed for everything.

Poor little mice! He had his hand in his trouser pocket before her. " For Heaven's sake don't give them anything. Oh, how typical of you! Horrid little monkeys! Now they'll follow us all the way. Don't encourage them ; you would encourage beggars " ; and she hurled the bunch out of the carriage with, " Well, do it when I'm not there, please. "
It's the nakedest instance in the book of  what we now call self-sabotage. The circular experience of misery and disappointment that results from the sufferer's own way of living.

The husband and wife relationship in "The Man Without a Temperament" has similarities, though here the wife is dying and truly needs her husband/carer/servant and is endlessly appreciative...

" Where's your shawl ?" he asked.
" Oh ! " She gave a little groan of dismay. " How silly I am, I've left it upstairs on the bed. Never mind. Please don't go for it. I shan't want it, I know I shan't."

Or Monica Tyrell in "Revelations", of course.

"Tell Monsieur I cannot come," she said gently. But as the door shut, anger -- anger suddenly gripped her close, close, violent, half strangling her. How dared he? How dared Ralph do such a thing [call to invite her to lunch] when he knew how agonizing her nerves were in the morning! Hadn't she explained and described and even -- though lightly, of course ; she couldn't say such a thing directly -- given him to understand that this was the one unforgiveable thing.

Reginald Peacock is another who finds mornings difficult and keeps experiencing "the one unforgiveable thing". 

If there was one thing that he hated more than another it was the way she had of waking him in the morning. ... but really, really, to wake a sensitive person like that was positively dangerous! It took him hours to get over it -- simply hours. ...

The( approximately) thirteen-year-old girl in "The Wind Blows" thinks:  "How hideous life is -- revolting, simply revolting..."

Then there's the just slightly hysterically over-ecstatic Bertha in "Bliss". ...

Or the explosion of the approximately five-year-old Sun at the end of "Sun and Moon": "I think it's horrid --- horrid --- horrid !"

Neurosis, you get the impression, was fashionable. But unbridled expressions of emotion are also natural, at a young age. And for the writer these "over-reactions", as we call them, can also produce a kind of expressionist vision of how we live.


What about the pair in "Psychology"?  This is a story about that all-too-familiar experience, a crunch. For a few seconds the two new special friends/definitely not lovers/hmm, potential lovers?... Well, we'll call them friends... For a few seconds the meeting of the two friends is perfect.

Just for a moment both of them stood silent in that leaping light. Still, as it were, they tasted on their smiling lips the sweet shock of their greeting. Their secret selves whispered:
   "Why should we speak? Isn't this enough?"
   "More than enough. I never realized until this moment..."
   "How good it is to be with you ...."
   "Like this ...."
   "It's more than enough."
   But suddenly he turned and looked at her and she moved quickly away.
   "Have a cigarette? I'll put the kettle on. ..."

They don't quite know what to do (caresses being not in their way). The gears crunch. A timing problem ensues. She associates meeting with tea. He doesn't really want tea. She needs it. There's a lot of fiddling with tea things, time is felt to pass. Silences become awkward. Or they speak at the same time. Or they say what they don't really feel, to break the silence. Or they are distracted by self-consciousness; by the feeling that it isn't working, or even by the feeling that thank God it is working now. Once again, looking at each other turns out to be fatal:

"Not at all," said he. "Look here ..." On the talk went. And now it seemed they really had succeeded. She turned in her chair to look at him while she answered. Her smile said: "We have won." And he smiled back, confident: "Absolutely."
   But the smile undid them. It lasted too long, it became a grin. They saw themselves as two little grinning puppets jigging away in nothingness. ...

In the end nothing is said and the wrong thing is said and it all comes to an end. But this pair aren't really neurotic, they are pretty normal. Nervous, suffering, disappointed, enchanted... the things we feel even when we habitually don't express them.

So much for the confidence of "And the best of it was they were both of them old enough to enjoy their adventure to the full without any stupid emotional complication..." --- Obviously, that glibness gets found out. But the story isn't really like a Dickensian narrator waxing archly avuncular about a pair of young people who are obviously in love but coy of knowing it. These two aren't in love, really. But then friendship isn't simple either. Emotional complication is always a part of life...


"Bliss", perhaps because it's the title story, or perhaps because it is more conventionally built than the others, with a dramatic twist, has been the perhaps unfortunate recipient of a mass of interpretations. 

This anxiety to make objects in the story mean something different to what the story shows they mean  --  Which comes first, I wonder, the failure to hear or the itch to interpret?

I think that Bertha's feeling of giddy bliss is a feeling of giddy bliss, not a feeling of sexual desire for either Pearl (a popular idea), nor - what certainly does develop later in the evening - sexual desire for her own husband. (Bertha is perfectly aware of the nature of that desire, as soon as she experiences it.) Now it's true that Bertha is - she says it herself - "in love with" Pearl. The meaning of that emerges, so far as the author is interested in it emerging, from the story.

I consider such questions as "What does Pearl Fulton's name really mean?" and "Why is it a pear tree rather than an apple tree?" to be based on radically false premises. I don't feel that I appreciate the story much better for being pointed at the book of Genesis, or Twelfth Night, or traditional symbolism of the moon.

Some commentators, it seems, aren't familiar with the spectacular appearance of pear blossom. They can't see why an apple-tree by moonlight wouldn't be just as good as a provoker of Bertha's bliss. They would prefer the tree to have been an apple, because it sounds more like the Tree of Knowledge.

Someone, straightfacedly, proposes that Mansfield chose a pear-tree because pear-trees are hermaphrodite, and hence a symbol of Bertha's latent bisexuality. Neither this someone nor their admirers seem to be aware that the vast majority of flowering plants are hermaphrodite.

But Mansfield was herself particularly fond of pear trees. And elsewhere in Bliss, too, we see that trees can be spellbinding objects that seem to the viewer rich in meaning (e.g. "The Escape" -- or the rather tree-like Aloe in "Prelude"...)


"The Little Governess" is a Law of Attraction story in which the governess's fear of foreigners precipitates her into exactly the kind of mess she most dreads. 

As the story proceeds, we find ourselves looking at the clock, rather as in Chapter II of Almqvist's Det går an, but the little governess should have learnt from Sara Videbeck's smart punctuality; you do not hand over timekeeping responsibilities to men who seem willing to "look after" you.


[post still being written...]

Bay (Laurus nobilis), April 9th, 2017, Bath



Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger